young fred rogers -- 9/18/20

Today's encore selection -- from Sunny Days: The Children's Television Revolution That Changed America by David Kamp. Young Fred Rogers:

"[Fred] Rogers had moved to [New York City] to work in television out of a sense of calling as much as career. In Rogers's case, the religious overtones were even more explicit -- he put off attending divinity school in his native western Pennsylvania to give TV a try, going to work for CBS's chief competitor, NBC.

"Rogers had attended Dartmouth College for two years before transferring to Rollins College in central Florida, where he majored in music. Home for spring break during his senior year, in 1951, Rogers had his first chance to watch television at length. Like John Bartlow Martin, he was appalled by most of its content, which he found lamentable. But he was fascinated by TV and announced to his parents that he was going to take some time after graduation to live in New York and give the field a try. They were flummoxed by this decision, noting to their son that he knew little about television. 'Yes, I know,' Rogers later recalled telling them, 'but I've seen enough to think that this is something I should do in the world before I go to the cloisters again.'

"A child of even greater privilege than [Joan] Ganz, Rogers grew up as a rich kid in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a factory town where his parents owned the factories. His mother, Nancy McFeely Rogers, came from a family that had made its fortune in bricks; his father, James Hillis Rogers, was an industrialist who owned a die-casting company and assumed the management of his wife's family's firm. His parents were compassionate capitalists, philanthropic and devoted to the arts. Fred grew up a de facto only child, alone until his parents adopted his sister, Nancy Elaine, when he was eleven.

"The original expectation had been that Fred would follow in his father's footsteps and take over the family business. But Rogers, asthmatic as a young child and therefore compelled to spend a lot of time indoors, developed a more contemplative, ministerial disposition. His parents, observant Presbyterians, did not object to his seminarian path. The TV thing, however, was a curveball. His parents had connections at NBC, since one of Nancy's forebears had been an original investor in RCA, the parent company of the network at the time of its founding. At NBC, Fred started out as a gofer and ascended to floor-manager positions on the network's music programs, which abounded in those pre-rock days. He worked on the popular-song showcases Your Hit Parade and The Kate Smith Hour, and the classical-music-oriented NBC Opera Theatre and The Voice of Firestone.

"Among his tasks for the latter, he recalled, was 'hiring handsome but mute men for Risë Stevens' -- an acclaimed mezzo-soprano -- 'to smile at while she sang.' With his music background and affable, can-do manner, Rogers proved an adept TV hand, and NBC was happy to have him. He gave little consideration to getting involved in children's television, though, until he was asked to. For NBC's local New York affiliate, WNBT, he was assigned to work on The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour, a Sunday-morning variety show that had migrated to television from radio, sponsored by the then thriving Automat chain. The program was devoted entirely to child performers, but Rogers, far from being charmed, was disturbed by the hustling, pushy stage parents and prematurely poised kids. 'I think it was then,' he later said, 'that I decided that children should never entertain children.'

"He was more disturbed still by Pinky Lee and Soupy Sales, comedians who broke through with programs for kids in the midfifties, on NBC and ABC, respectively. In part, it was a simple clash of sensibilities -- Lee (né Pincus Leff), a manic, baggy-pants refugee from vaudeville, and Sales (né Milton Supman), a young, urbane Jewish hipster, were the antithesis of wholesome, Presbyterian Fred. Rogers was especially put off by the violence, as he perceived it, of their signature schticks: in Lee's case, squirting his adversaries in the face with seltzer water, and in Sales's case, receiving a pie in his face. Some kids might have laughed, but others, sharing Rogers's childhood sensitivity, to which he still had ready access as an adult, might have found the wocka-wocka antics downright frightening."



David Kamp


Sunny Days


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2020 by David Kamp


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